In Devon is a wood of over three hundred acres, surrounded on three sides by the curve of a river, the fourth side edged by a busy main road. This oakwood was once a Chase, a hunting ground from Norman times, part of one of the great manorial estates of the county.
In ages past the harsh laws that applied to many such hunting grounds with mutilation, fines and imprisonment, applied to anyone caught transgressing these manor grounds. In Regency and Victorian times the chase was strictly preserved for shooting, no doubt with man traps and spring guns set to deter interlopers. Yet even then there was recognition of the woodland’s beauty. In the nineteenth-century, a landowner built carriage drives that contoured the hillsides, so that his friends and visitors might better see the exquisite views over the swirling waters of the river.
One guidebook author, writing in the years before the Great War, tells us that the then landowner opened up the carriage drives to the public on certain days of the week, showing at least some commitment to sharing such beauty with others. It is a dramatic landscape, the wooded hillside falling steeply from an Iron Age hill fort to the white waters of a mighty river; great rocky tors rising steeply both from the hillside and the river banks. There was once some industry here, for hidden deep in the undergrowth are the shafts and adits of ancient mine workings.
While the Chase is no longer preserved for game, some local people have a concession for occasional rough shooting, and a fisherman or two might be seen near to the little footbridge on summer evenings. For such a vast area there is a limited amount of wildlife as much of it was cleared in earlier days. The empty badger setts speak volumes about the past ferocity of unenlightened gamekeepers towards Britain’s native wildlife. The near-island status of the woodland has made natural re-colonization difficult, though some mammals have been put back over the past few years.
There is no absolute refusal of entry to the forest and river banks. The landowner is not opposed to limited access by written permission. But the general public is discouraged. There are few access points. High wire fences and locked gates greet the visitor in the area adjacent to the nearest public car park. The fast-flowing river is sufficient deterrent to all but the brave or foolhardy on three sides.
I had not walked through the woodlands of the chase for some years, until my trespass. I had had no plans to go there on that quiet Tuesday but, seeing the autumnal woods from the opposite hillside proved too great a temptation. I had had a fraught meeting earlier in the day and felt the need to unwind in some wild place. There were not many cars on the road, so I climbed over the hedge bank and plunged into the cover of the wood. There were one or two nearby houses, but no one was about as I headed along the brow of the hill along one of the now overgrown Victorian carriage drives. This rutted trail bore little sign that anyone had been there recently; there were the hoof prints of horses and old boot marks, but no suggestion of fresher human tracks in its muddy ruts.
You get a strange feeling walking through great woodlands, knowing that although this is urbanised southern England, there is no one close at hand. A fall here could mean that you might not be found for days or even weeks. Although this should be a perilous sensation it is not. It is comforting that there are such places where we can still be totally in thrall to nature in all its wildness, a far cry from the over-comfortable state in which most of us exist if not actually live.
Then, for the trespasser, is the contrary feeling that perhaps you are not alone. You search the trees and the undergrowth for the watching eyes, and even though you sink into a mood of pure relaxation your nerves are geared up to the possibility of ambush. You think of what you might say if you are challenged. Will you be aggressive or submissive? Will there be a moment of violence or just mutual embarrassment? You look for side paths so that you might slink away if you hear other footsteps, the crack of a dry twig, or someone’s conversation. The true trespasser seeks avoidance and not confrontation, unless it be an occasion when you really want to make a political point.
Walking beneath the highest trees in the chase is like progressing through the arches of some great cathedral. There is a stateliness about such trees, inducing a feeling of awe that there should be such wondrous creations on the face of the Earth. Even in an early autumn there is a great deal of cover left, magnificent leaves of every shade of brown and russet, continually adding in the gentle breeze to the thick carpet of vegetation at your feet. Even the wider tracks are hidden by lost leaves and sometimes obstructed by branches brought down in the year’s gales.
As I strolled on, I came to a vast open space surrounded on all sides by the forest; the track I was following forcing a way alongside a tiny stream. There were roe deer grazing not far from the woodland edge, some feeding and others standing sentinel, regarding each area of the woodland boundary for threatening intruders.
I was walking with the prevailing wind at my back, but the depth of the trees and undergrowth disperse the air currents in all directions, giving no hint of my approach. I lay down alongside the roots of an oak and watched the deer for nearly an hour – a real privilege to see them in such a natural setting. I have watched deer in these woods before, not just the roe but red deer that have made the long journey from Exmoor. There are also the strange little muntjac with their noisy bark, introduced to the area by some past landowner.
I wondered how to progress on my journey without disturbing the deer, when the matter was taken out of my hands. First one, then another, then all the deer looked up. I knew why. A harsh crack of a snapped tree bough echoed up from the valley, followed by the crash of someone forcing their way uphill through the scrub. The outer branches of a holly shivered and a man emerged on to the track.
The deer had not waited for his appearance, but had disappeared into the forest on the opposite side of the clearing. I knew the man. He was an estate worker who had the occasional duty of patrolling the chase in search of interlopers. He was quite elderly, with a ruddy face and grey hair straddling out from beneath an old tweed cap. He paused on the track out of breath from the arduous climb up from the river and the fishermen’s footbridge.
I considered at first that I might have been seen entering the chase and the man sent over to find me, but decided that it was pure coincidence that we were together in the woodland. He didn’t seem to be searching for anyone, just enjoying a work day on his own, away from managerial eyes. I slid back away from the oak and backwards into deeper vegetation, keeping him in sight all the while. Just as well as a moment later he turned down the track towards me. I watched as he passed within a few feet obviously unaware of my presence, breathing heavily as he negotiated the fallen branches.
I sometimes wonder, when on a trespassing walk, whether I am passing hidden watchers in exactly that same way. Woods are deep and secret places and your imagination hints that there might be a thousand hidden eyes. In olden times when the chase was a game preserve both keeper and poacher would have been wary of being observed, watching the signs of nature for hints that they were not alone.
In well preserved woods it is very difficult to move quietly at all. On a ramble in Sussex I must have put up a hundred very noisy pheasants in the course of a couple of miles. There is the running of the deer, the sudden bolt of rabbit and hare, even an alarmed blackbird. All give warnings that there is someone about. In farm fields cows often come to investigate the passing rambler. Sheep head away from the hillwalkers on moorland and mountain. Pigeons divert from their course as they pass near walkers. All draw the eyes and ears of those who would oppose the trespasser.
I could hear the man for nearly half an hour as he continued on his way. But I saw no more deer as I came out on to the track and set off in the opposite direction, downhill now towards the river. The path was steep and overgrown. It was hard to imagine the Victorian trippers negotiating it by horse and carriage. They must have had exciting expeditions. How often was their sightseeing observed by some unauthorised spectator?
I heard the river long before it came into view. For a while the track contoured just above its banks for a long stretch, before making one final dip towards the lower carriage drive that followed its course. It had rained heavily in the previous weeks and the high moorland was issuing forth its stored moisture. White water broke over fierce rapids. Dark and jagged rocks, emerging from the thundering flow, seemed to tear apart the river itself. If anything else was making a noise in that landscape it could not be heard against the roar of the river. A thousand watchers might yell disapproval at my presence but they were as silence itself against the sounds that boiled through the valley.
A long length of almost pure white water led to a sudden curve in the river, where it fell into a deep and dark pool. On the opposite bank a great cliff arose from the pool, rising high above the banks and the surrounding trees. Even in autumn little sunlight penetrated to the black waters of this quieter stretch of river. The pool is famously deep but has a forbidding atmosphere that seems to deter the swimmer. It is a place just made for suicide. Its sinister waters seem to urge you to the very act of jumping. I once intended to spend an evening there watching for otters, but felt so depressed that I hurried away after just an hour. I stayed there on my trespass for only the briefest of moments before continuing back upstream.
The carriage drive brought me to the miniature suspension bridge used by fishermen. The gate was unlocked, so I crossed and left the privacy of the chase behind. I had walked through one of the most magnificent landscapes in southern England. Seen once again spectacular and beautiful river scenery and tramped beneath tall and majestic trees. But how sad that this land, countryside that should be the common heritage of us all, is barred to those who might most delight in its wonders.
This is published here in celebration of the Ramblers decision to campaign for increased access to our forests and woodlands. See the previous blog to find out how you can help. The above is an abridged version of a chapter from my book The Compleat Trespasser. On offer to Kindle readers for just 99 this weekend. Also in paperback. Just click on the link to start reading or to order.